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I am in Asia, and one of my master student wants very much to go to the US to study for his PhD. He applied 25 PhD programs and has asked for a reference letter. I think 8-10 programs is quite enough.

Will it really help for him to apply to 25 or even 30+ PhD program?

P.S. those programs are distributed to different rankings.

I feel that if a student's profile is not good, then it won't help to apply to even 1 school. If a student's profile is good, then they would likely get into a good proportion of schools. But does it really make a difference to be accepted to 5 of 10 schools vs. 15 of 30?

P.S. I do want to know, if the profile is really marginal or even not good, would it happen that he will have 0/10 if he applied 10 programs, but 1/30 if he applied 30 programs by chance alone?

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    You're not going to get in to the schools that you don't apply to. Dec 9, 2023 at 1:22
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    After my masters I sent 100 applications to PhD offers. Only about 10 of them replied in a reasonable time-frame; most of them replied more than six months later (and I told them nope, too late). PhD advisors are humans and there is a lot of randomness in the process. Why would you shoot yourself in the foot by sending fewer applications than you can?
    – Stef
    Dec 9, 2023 at 12:23
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    did you manage to get a professor to send 100 letters for you? or you asked different professors to send the reference letters? To be honest, it makes me feel the student thinks applying PhD is just buying lottery instead of he is seriously thinking to do research. I started to feel reluctant to write a good reference letter for him. Dec 9, 2023 at 14:51
  • My professors ended up giving me the template of the recommendation letter so I could fill in the institution/programme details. because I was applying to many. Yes, its completely reasonable to assume that someone has e.g. 1/30 chances to getting a PhD position, considering how much it also relies on luck. Dec 11, 2023 at 10:36
  • Oftentimes, the issue for international students is funding. I'm not sure how (bio)statistics is funded but our genomics/bioinformatics program was limited in the number of international students it could take by the amount of NIH funding (limited to citizens/green card holders) for first years who were doing rotations and thus didn't have the support of labs (who are also mostly NIH-funding based). If your student can TA the whole time, fine. But if they want funding that doesn't require citizenship, then applying to an excessive number may actually be reasonable.
    – GenesRus
    Dec 31, 2023 at 7:39

4 Answers 4

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For PhD programs (not undergraduate or masters), the advice I've always heard is: Don't focus on the ranking of the school or even the department. Instead, your application should describe your specific research interests, and you should apply to departments with specific faculty members who are experts in those topics:

"Since I am keenly interested in topic XYZ, I would love to work with your Professor ABC and their colleagues in the DEF lab, whose active research on DEF is pushing forward our understanding of XYZ."

By contrast, if your interests are so broad/generic that you can imagine applying to 25 different PhD programs, then I suspect you may not have a well-refined set of research interests, or you haven't thought carefully about which faculty members you'd be eager to work with. If so, your applications will look generic, not tailored to the program:

"I like statistics, and your department has 'Statistics' in the name."

Of course your interests and advisor can change during the PhD! But by writing a specific application, it shows you've already thought deeply about the field and your specific place in it, which makes you a safer bet for the PhD admissions committee.

If you do have well-thought-out research interests, there probably don't exist 25 different programs that could match them well. So in this sense, 25 sounds like "too many" to me.

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There's a lot of randomness in graduate admissions, so I understand students who apply to a lot of programs to increase their odds. It's less about getting into a single program, and more about having a choice or getting accepted to one the programs you really want.

I'd recommend to your student that they apply broadly, that is, not only to the "top 1-25" programs, but also not only to the "top 175-200 programs" or any other range: apply to a broad range of schools by selectivity within the range of interest, including some that the student is really excited to go to and some others that they'd be willing to go to if only accepted there.

I would caution them that programs do expect a bit of customization of applications and evidence in an application that the student has considered that program specifically. If every application feels generic, the probability of acceptance for each will decrease, and if you apply to so many schools that they're all too generic the odds might drop to near zero. In particular, I would suggest still spending close attention on applications to less selective programs: research universities in the US are all quite limited in how many applicants they accept. For undergraduate admissions in the US people often talk about the concept of a "safety school"; that might apply a bit to graduate programs, too, but there aren't any PhD programs that will just accept everyone who applies and meets some bare minimum criteria.

Ultimately, though, if you provide this sort of advice and they still want to apply to 25 schools, I don't think it's really your decision to tell them otherwise. For your own sanity, you can ask them to prioritize the letters you write, and use a more generic letter for ones lower on the priority list (let the student know that this is your plan and what you can offer ahead of time, of course).

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    Let me add my emphasis on broadly. Similar institutions may have similar criteria. If you are rejected by one it is more likely that you are rejected by other similar ones. Cast a wide net.
    – Buffy
    Dec 8, 2023 at 19:14
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    An element that it seems like all answers are missing is maybe obvious to those of us in the US but still worth thinking about discussing with a student looking for advice: Most US Math grad programs have application fees. There may be diminishing returns on additional applications after a point, while there are linear-scale losses with more applications.
    – user176372
    Dec 11, 2023 at 0:43
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The advice for applicants is generally to apply to about 9 schools at a proportion of 3 reach schools, 3 slight reach, and 3 easy acceptance (is there really such a thing for graduate schools?). In reality, I think it is very worth it to apply to more in the reach and slight reach category.

The PhD application acceptance has both a non-random component (objective applicant quality measures) and a random component (maybe someone on the committee really likes your writing sample, had a great experience meeting your letter writer at a conference, or was really impressed with the last person they met from your undergrad program).

In my mind, there are at least three reasons for an applicant to apply to more than the conventional 9 schools. First, if you think the random component is large, then, given the returns from getting into a higher ranked school, it is quite advantageous for the applicant with a marginal application to try quite a few reach schools to see if they have good draw at one of them. Another rationale for applying to more schools is if an applicant doesn't understand clearly where they sit on the distribution of applicants. It might not be clear what schools are reach and which are ridiculous reaches. Finally, if the applicant doesn't have a good outside option, there will be a big cost to "learn" about their chances with the process via this year's application. While some would be happy to take a second try at it the next year, for others there would be a big cost to taking the risk of getting too many negative draws.

Even with these reasons, 25 applications sounds like a lot. But I would work through it by helping the applicant understand their chances and think through costs and benefits, rather than focusing on a specific number.

Possibly related story: My husband applied to 9 schools and got into the best and worst of the 9. The fact that the best school accepted him was the result of a good draw and has had many benefits. If he hadn't had that good draw, I would have encouraged him to apply to more than 9 the next time.

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If they can really write 25 good applications then it might be OK. But a grad school application needs to focus on quality first. It needs to show that your desired research matches that of some faculty in the department (mention them by name and show how it matches). Best is to talk to those faculty first, but that can be difficult.

The most effective way to do that is to approach people at conferences, but that assumes you have the resources to attend conferences and the personal ability to walk up to people and interject yourself.

You can email them, but I agree that that's also difficult and has a low likelihood of success, as we all get much more email than we can deal with. If you have a publication, attaching a copy would be a way to break the ice there and show you are serious.

The other really good way to get introduced is to have the advisor contact the relevant potential faculty that they know personally.

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